Released, but not reintegrated

Posted: January 09, 2013

THIS IS NOT how Colwin Williams pictured life as a free man after nearly two decades behind bars.

Ten months after the 44-year-old was released from the state prison in Chester, Williams hoped to be in his own place, not in a second Philadelphia halfway house awaiting approval to move in with his mother.

He wanted to be inching closer to a college degree, not forced to withdraw from most of his classes at Bucks County Community College when they conflicted with a mandatory violence-prevention program for ex-cons. He got an A in the one class - rhetorical skills - he was able to attend.

He wanted to be employed, not stressing about how to stretch $1.50 of borrowed money, 50 cents of which he gave to a panhandler.

"It won't make a big difference to me," Williams said. "But it might to him."

More than anything, Williams wanted to build relationships with his children. They were just babies, or in their mothers' wombs, when he went away. He's connected with most of them now, but he's also watched, often helplessly, as his 19-year-old namesake travels perilously close to a path that leads to jail.

Williams, who grew up in Bristol, with a single mother, was 25 when he was sentenced in 1993 to 15 to 30 years for multiple armed robberies.

By the time he led cops on a high-speed chase the night of his last arrest, he'd already spent much of his life in and out jail.

He got his high-school diploma in a juvenile-detention facility. He read to his two oldest kids for the first time during a later prison visit. He read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. They were 21.

"You cannot make up for time lost," a self-assured Williams told me when we met in March, just a few weeks after his release.

"When time is gone, it's gone," he said. "The only thing we can do is catch on."

It sounded good. But of all the pitfalls on his road to redemption - he got busted for smoking synthetic marijuana with a fellow ex-con; he argued with a manager at a halfway house - his sense of time and urgency has proved to be his biggest stumbling block.

The time he thought it would take to strike out on his own, to feel like his own man and find his place in a world he was rejoining - all of it, he says, is taking longer than he imagined.

"There's times you want to say, 'Forget this.' Here I am trying and trying, and things don't seem to be working out like I wanted. It's easy to let the frustration win."

Williams is just one ex-con in a city of many. But his story, and struggles, represent thousands on the same path.

Every year, more than 18,000 inmates are released from Pennsylvania prisons, according to numbers from the Department of Corrections. More than 40 percent are back behind bars within three years.

William Hart, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-offenders (RISE), said that even with preparation and support, neither inmates nor their families fully appreciate the "enormity of the challenges of reintegration."

It finally seems to be sinking in with Williams. He still talks big plans and even bigger dreams; he hopes to be a motivational speaker to young people.

But when we met recently, there also seemed to be a new acceptance of the bittersweet realization that, although he may no longer be behind bars, it would be a while before he was truly free. Williams is on probation until 2029.

"I think right now what I need to focus on is getting a job and going to school and then figuring out what fits in around that," he said. "It's hard to slow down when you're so ready to move ahead. But I'm a work in progress, and sometimes progress takes time."


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

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